Dani Trotman is a psychologist, proud cat mom, and the human half of Science with My Cat. SWMC focuses on encouraging kids and adults alike to be involved with science through fun facts, interesting projects, and, of course, cute cats.
My love for cats and science go back as far as I can remember, and I attribute both to growing up in rural Florida. Cats are an important part of the farm ecosystem, protecting crops and livestock from unwanted pests, so my family always had cats. Country living meant spending time outdoors and surrounded by questions about why things in nature are the way they are.
Now, I use both of both my love for cats and science to get kids excited about learning. Showing kids real world examples of science at work is one of the quickest ways to get them and keep them interested in their education. Bringing science out of the classroom and providing kids with safe experiments they can do with their pets, enables them to see science at work while learning something new and gives their cat some play time! It also allows them to build observation skills and enables them to see the science in everyday life.
Here are a couple quick and easy science activities you can do with your favorite felines!
1. Right or Left Pawed
Most of us have a hand that we prefer to use when writing, using tools, or just picking up things. Right handedness is significantly more prevalent in humans than left handedness, with about 90% of the world being right hand dominant. Have you ever thought about whether your feline is right or left pawed? Cats, like humans, have a dominant paw. While most, 50%, are right pawed, 40% are left pawed, and 10% are considered ambidextrous. It’s a snap to test and find out your cat’s dominant paw, and I’m sure you already have the materials. You will need:
- A cat toy on a string
- Pen & paper
- Keen observation skills
Start by dangling the string toy in front of your cat and see which paw your cat uses to swipe or grab the toy. Repeat this for between 20 and 30 times, being sure to write it down as you go. You could also place a treat or your cat’s favorite toy underneath a piece of furniture and see which paw your cat uses to reach for it or observe which paw they use first to scratch a door or scratching post. Gideon uses her right paw most often, while Saturn uses his left. If you have a dog instead of a cat, you can look for their dominant paw by seeing which one they more often use to shake hands or which paw they use to hold down a Kong toy that contains a treat.
Why does this matter? While most of the research into laterality - or the preference for one side of the body - has been conducted on humans, studies on cats and dogs link consistent use of the same side with more activity and more confidence. An animal’s dominant side is also important to know when matching service or therapy animals to an owner, as that will determine which paw the animal will most likely reach with and which side of the person they will naturally want to walk beside.
2. Boxed In
If you Google “cats in boxes,” you’ll receive almost 5 million results in half a second. People seem to be as obsessed with cats in boxes as cats are with getting in boxes. I’m sure you’ve noticed this behavior in your own cat. Cats have a natural instinct to seek out places that are high up or confined. This allows them to feel safely hidden from predators while still being able to view any prey that might be scurrying around. Gideon prefers being up high, more often than not napping in trees. Saturn, on the other hand, tends to enjoy laying on the floor and under furniture.
- Two boxes
- A piece of furniture your cat is allowed on (such as a couch or coffee table)
- Pen & paper
- A curious kitty
- Optional: timer
Start by placing one box on the ground and the other on the piece of furniture. Observe how your cat interacts with the boxes. Do they sniff both before climbing inside one or do they jump inside the first box they see? This experiment is an example of preference testing, which is often used in the study of animal motivation and behavior. By measuring how long your cat takes to get inside a box and how frequently they get inside it, you can measure the strength of the preference. If you cat investigates both boxes, they are demonstrating information gathering in order to weigh the options and pick out what is best for their needs.
Why does it matter? Indoor cats that like high places might get on furniture or appliances that could be dangerous for them. If they like confined spaces, they could end up stuck behind or underneath furniture. Outdoor cats who climb a lot, like Gideon, can accidentally climb too high and be unable to get down. Knowing if your cat prefers tight or high up spaces can make it easier to locate them if you can’t find them and it can be beneficial knowledge when picking out bedding (i.e. cat tree vs normal pet bed) your cat will be comfortable using.
These are just my two favorite cat science experiments, but there are plenty of others you can try at home. Cats see the world differently - mostly in muted blues and greens - than we do because their eyes have a different structure; does that mean that different color lights impact them differently? Does changing feeding times change behavior? By allowing kids to safely explore these questions, you open up the world of science.